Army medical personnel were soon followed by staff from other organisations. Molly Silva Jones was one of the first Red Cross nurses to enter Bergen-Belsen. On 19th April 1945, she left the following entries in her diary (with later additions).    

Who could imagine that a Concentration Camp could be hidden in such country? It seemed fantastic, the peace of the pine woods becoming sombre and sinister. On the left we caught the first glimpse of barbed wire through which people peered at us, strange figures clad in blue striped pyjamas. Increasing gradually was an indescribable stench that pervaded everything…

Possibly none of us had ever been so stirred – with pity – shame – remorse – yes, because even in 1934 we had heard of these camps and had not realised, not wanted to realise, that such things could happen. And lastly but not least we were stirred with a cold anger against those primarily responsible, the Germans, an anger which grew daily at Belsen. Stirred also an increased desire to help; nothing we could do was enough to restore… some measure of mental and physical health. We went back to the road without speaking. We knew the uselessness of words, not for the last time at Belsen.

In the weeks and months that followed, soldiers, medical personnel, and relief workers all struggled to restore some semblance of normal life. However, it is also important to realise that the rebuilding of lives and even communities was also initiated by survivors themselves, highlighting the need to avoid seeing them as passive victims. 

Photo: female survivors of Bergen-Belsen after liberation; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lev Sviridov

Diary extracts: Suzanne Bardgett & David Cesarani (eds.), Belsen 1945: New Historical Perspectives (Vallentine Mitchell)